By MICHAEL GINGOLD
British-born filmmaker Simon Rumley has explored obsessions and aberrant psychology in numerous films including THE LIVING AND THE DEAD and RED WHITE & BLUE, and tackles his most unique fixation yet in FASHIONISTA, opening this weekend. We got exclusive words with Rumley about this disturbing psychothriller.
FASHIONISTA hits VOD/digital platforms tomorrow, February 9 from Freestyle Digital Media, and also plays several Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas this weekend (see info at the bottom of this page). RED WHITE & BLUE’s Amanda Fuller plays April plays April, a fashion-obsessed woman who runs a vintage clothing store with her similarly fixated boyfriend Eric (Ethan Embry). When she meets wealthy alpha male Randall (Eric Balfour), she becomes torn between the two of them in ways that compel her into a downward mental spiral (see our review here). Set in Austin, Texas, where Rumley also shot RED WHITE and his revenge thriller JOHNNY FRANK GARRETT’S LAST WORD, FASHIONISTA is told in a nonlinear style in which the sense of time is as unhinged as its heroine becomes.
What inspired you to make a thriller about this particular obsession?
It was a few different things converging at the same time. I wanted to do something about consumerism and anti-consumerism, and I knew I wanted to do it in Austin. I initially wrote a script about a man who throws away all his possessions, but then I completely scrapped it. I retained the germ of that idea as I thought about a new concept, and decided I wanted to also do an addiction movie—but not about drugs. There’s a massive vintage clothing scene in Austin—although it’s not as big as it used to be—so bit by bit, all these little ideas joined together to form the larger picture.
Do you have any particular clothing fascinations, or have you known anyone who has?
Well, I love jackets. I always think it’s the jacket that defines and makes an outfit. For the last 15 years or so, I’ve tried to buy a new winter jacket every year; the one I’ve owned the longest is a brown U.S. bomber jacket that I’ve had for over 30 years. Beyond that, I’ve always liked clothes and been interested in how they can change a person. When I was growing up in the UK in the ’80s, if you liked a certain kind of music, you generally dressed accordingly—so you’d look like a punk or a goth or rockabilly or a mod or a skinhead etc. Beyond that, though, I’ve never really known anyone who’s worked in the fashion world, and although it’s something that has always interested me, I’ve always been more fascinated by the music or the art or the films that inspire the clothing.
Do you think fashion obsession is now stronger than ever in our society?
That’s an interesting question. Fashion is a multibillion-dollar industry, and probably more lucrative than it ever was, but this seems very tied up with the social media/selfie culture of the moment. So in terms of wanting to spend money on expensive—or, indeed, inexpensive—clothes to help make us feel good about ourselves, I’d say it probably is stronger than ever before. That said, the ingenuity and individualism and self-expression that was inspired by musical forces, probably from the ’60s through the ’80s, now seems to be almost devoid from today’s fashion aesthetic, which is a shame.
With the central idea established, how did you shape the story around it?
I’d recently finished a film called CROWHURST, which was executive-produced by the great Nicolas Roeg, who’s pretty much my favorite film director ever. PERFORMANCE, DON’T LOOK NOW, BAD TIMING, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and WALKABOUT are just stunning—not only in terms of their construction and content, but also subject matter and psychology. And, indeed, darkness. I met up with Nic a few times, went around to his house, chatted about the script for CROWHURST and the first cut, etc. I’ve always been fascinated by how he makes his films work, but their structure especially, and in the back of my mind, I’d always wanted to make a non-linear film like Nic’s. Having spent time with him, I felt that if I was ever going to they that, the time was ripe.
That’s how I wrote FASHIONSITA, in a blur of Red Bull intoxication over a relatively quick three-week period, and I wrote it in the non-linear structure you see in the finished film. That was interesting, since it made it almost impossible for anyone to give me any really constructive notes about the script. BAD TIMING was the Roeg film that was really the template for FASHIONISTA; it’s his most extreme movie in terms of both the experimentation of the editing and the psychology of his characters. I gave Ethan and Amanda a copy to watch so that they could at least have a vague idea as to where we were headed with our film, and I think that helped them understand the script. One day, somewhere, I’d love to see a double bill of BAD TIMING and FASHIONISTA!
Also, having spent a reasonable amount of time in Austin shooting RED WHITE & BLUE in 2009, and returning in 2010 for both SXSW and Fantastic Fest, it wasn’t until 2014 that I returned for a test screening of what became JOHNNY FRANK GARRETT’S LAST WORD. And I noticed the city had changed. There was much more traffic, more traffic jams; the restaurants, or the new ones at least, seemed more “cosmopolitan,” and there were more white-shirt-wearing-type people who wouldn’t have looked out of place in London or New York. As I looked around, I realized there were more condos being built and more cranes everywhere, and I realized that like almost all other great cities, Austin was being gentrified. So Eric Balfour’s character represents that kind of gentrification—the electronic music he listens to, the clothes he wears, the places he visits, etc.
How would you categorize FASHIONISTA in terms of genre?
That’s a tough one. It’s neither one thing nor the other, which is probably what every sales agent, distributor and film industry person would say to avoid at all costs. I see it most of all as a thriller—an intriguing thriller. As with previous films of mine, such as THE LIVING AND THE DEAD and RED WHITE & BLUE, I’ve often been asked, is it horror? In my mind, it’s probably the least horror film I’ve done in the past decade and a half, with the exception of CROWHURST. The atmosphere is different, and the descent into harsh violence that characterized my two earlier films is certainly missing, as is the overall sense of dread and discomfort. But that said, much like my previous movies, it is about a normal situation that gets very out of hand, with disastrous consequences for all concerned.
Were the lead roles written with the actors in mind?
I wrote the part of April specifically for Amanda Fuller. We’d collaborated before, of course, on RED WHITE & BLUE, she’s an all-round great person to work and hang out with and we stayed friends after that experience, so I asked her if she’d be up for doing another film together. She said yes, I wrote the script and it went from there. I also wrote the part of Hank for Devin Bonnée, who played Johnny in JOHNNY FRANK GARRETT’S LAST WORD. He’s a very talented actor and free spirit, and again, just a good guy. I liked the idea of making a homeless character seemingly the most sane and charming out of the whole bunch.
What is it about Fuller that makes her so right for your kinds of films?
First and foremost, she’s an excellent actress, and you can’t say anything better than that! Nothing’s too much trouble for her, and she has this amazing ability to appear vulnerable yet very strong onscreen. That contradiction suits my writing and thematics. She threw herself with utter dedication into both RED WHITE & BLUE and FASHIONISTA, in roles that were challenging in pretty much every respect, and never complained once. Hopefully, we’ll work together on many more films in the near future!
What draws you to Texas as a location?
Well, I love Texas. More specifically, I love Austin. I’d been there once before 2006, which was when I went to Fantastic Fest with THE LIVING AND THE DEAD. It was this crazy, heady mix of Americana, punk, rock ’n’ roll, beer, tacos, cinematic obsession—all the things I love. Just as importantly, the people were really open and friendly. I quickly made friends with Tim and Karrie League when I stayed at their house during Fantastic Fest, and things went from there. Tim executive-produced both RED WHITE & BLUE and FASHIONISTA, so without him and Karrie, I wouldn’t have gone back to Austin to shoot either film. I also worked with Paul Knaus and Karen Hallford on both films as co-producer and casting director respectively, and they’re both key components in my ongoing desire to return there.
What went into designing the costumes, and getting all the prop clothes together?
We had an amazing designer called Olivia Mori. It’s funny—some people get what I do and some don’t, some people instinctively understand the film when they watch it and some really don’t. Olivia got the FASHIONISTA script from the offset and was excited to work on an incredibly ambitious project for her and her department. In the end, I believe Amanda had over 100 costume changes. Because there were really no rules, I gave Olivia a blank canvas for her to do what she wanted. She rose to the challenge and did a stunning job, which both Amanda and I were super-happy with. A lot of the clothes were actually Olivia’s, and quite a few were Amanda’s. A few came from some of the locations we scouted and filmed on too.
How does FASHIONISTA fit into your body of work as a whole, and do you plan to explore similar themes in future films?
Good question. For someone who hasn’t done a lot of “obvious” films, I think it’s probably my least “obvious” film. It’s different from what is around today and doesn’t fit any easy categorization or trend. It has a big fuck-you attitude and an aesthetic that goes against pretty much all contemporary films. As well as coming off the back of CROWHURST, it was also a knee-jerk reaction to JOHNNY FRANK GARRETT’S LAST WORD, which I had a really tough time on. It continues the exploration into psychology and the darker side of the human spirit, but for a change, it has a positive, or at least more optimistic, ending than my previous efforts. I’m trying to go straight in my old age, and more commercial, so ONCE UPON A TIME IN LONDON, which I’m in post on now, will hopefully mark something of a change in direction for me…but let’s see!
FASHIONISTA plays the following Alamo Drafthouse locales this weekend: